What does it mean now to publish your work?

It’s a hot topic in general, but recently it’s come up a lot in my conversations: publishing. The question facing many of us writers is no longer when we want to get published, but how. Book, journal, chapbook? Self-publish, or go through a big house or a small press? Blog, or write e-books? Publishing is experiencing the same contractions music publishing has been dealing with for years (and still hasn’t fully figured out).

Stack of books

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Traditional feeling stays close to the cliché of “publish or perish.” Publication (in a book, by a big or small press) is the end goal of writing, everyone says, and thence everyone strives. You write and write and write, and someday, if you’re good enough, you will be rewarded. It’s a good goal and an old one, and no doubt the mercilessness of editorial decisions inspires many writers to become better then they would otherwise be. But it is not, as yet, a goal I have pursued. The simplest reason is that I haven’t any finished work to send out. The few short stories I’ve completed do not live up to my own standards — I wouldn’t want them representing me, out in the world — and I’m still developing my voice/format for the pictures-and-words stuff.

But I have another reason, and it is that currently, where I’m at in my creative career, I don’t feel that seeking traditional publication is the best use of my time. Why do people publish? To obtain support (financial and other), recognition, contacts, and opportunities. Perhaps in future I’ll shake my head at these youthful delusions of self-competency, but I don’t feel that I presently lack those things. I could do with more, of course; one can always do with more; but I’m busy enough as it is… and thanks to my DIY and internet experience, I’m accustomed to a high level of control over my work and my public presence, and to directness and intimacy in my personal connections. And since my work doesn’t fit neatly into categories of fiction or memoir, prose or poetry, artwork or text, it feels natural to consider alternative and more fluid methods of publication as well.

I’m not the only one thinking about these things. Ré’s recent post followed close after Lisa’s at The Story River (both with lively discussions in the comments), and over the weekend the subject came up with Jen Palmares Meadows as we shared a breakfast-for-lunch. These were the points that struck me:

  • Lisa wrote, “There is still some stigma attached to self-publishing, and writers as well as publishers still feel self-publishing is done only when no one else wants your manuscript.” This is true, especially since many self-published books are poorly edited and — I’ll say it flat out — ugly.
  • Yet there are also self-published e-books outselling the ones by established writers, as Huge indicated in comments on Ré’s post; you can read the FAQ on Lisa Genova’s amazing Still Alice to hear the self-publishing success story of that book. Of course, as in the case of Etsy, just because some people have been able to quit their day job doesn’t mean everyone will (and in the meantime, the famous successes will drive a whole lot of cruddy product onto the market).
  • Ré wrote that in some cases there’s an adversarial relationship between publishers and bloggers, when a publication refuses to accept a piece that’s already been “published” on a blog, no matter how tiny. This reminds me a little of music companies suing college students for downloading illegal music — you can fill a bucket but buddy, ain’t no way you can stop the tide!
  • It’s not just publication that’s in question here, but a whole mindset about how artists publicize and get paid for their work. Way back when, there used to be patronage, and more recently publishers, galleries, record companies, etc have stepped in to fill that gap. Now we have grassroots funding methods like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter — or even the good ol’ PayPal “Donate” button. Is this sustainable? And if it is (maybe even if it isn’t), how does it change our outlook toward allying ourselves with traditional outlets for sharing our work?

I am a book person and likely always will be; I love the way they look, feel, smell (sometimes), fill my bookshelves and weigh down my backpack (sort of). I’d like to publish a book someday, even books in the plural. But I am also a child of the internet, a devotee of the one-of-a-kind and artisanal, and a supporter of experimentation in art. I feel no need to bow down before a single form of publication, any more than I am willing to confine my work to a single genre or medium. Change is afoot — at least I fervently hope so — and I count myself lucky to be a part of it, both as a consumer and, I hope, as a creator.